Virginia’s law firms go virtual amid pandemic
In any other year, the merger that formed Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP would have gotten top billing in the year’s legal news. But 2020 wasn’t like any other year for the legal profession.
The pandemic’s economic fallout caused some law firms to enact cutbacks and temporary salary reductions; some senior staffers took voluntary furloughs. And what’s more, the courts ground to a halt, as the Virginia Supreme Court issued a March 2020 emergency declaration stating that no jury trials could take place anywhere in the state.
Eventually, localities would be allowed to submit reopening plans. In September 2020, circuit courts in Alleghany, Henrico and Stafford counties and Norfolk were the first to be allowed to resume jury trials; dozens of other circuit courts around the state have since received approval. Virginia’s court system is still dealing with a backlog of cases.
New allowances in the courts were made to accommodate cases during the pandemic, and technology was suddenly thrust into a greater role in the legal profession, including an expanded use of streaming video for digital hearings and depositions.
Like many other industries, law firms had to deal with a plethora of pandemic workplace issues around telecommuting, including enacting new rules and updating cybersecurity. Some firms also had to apply for Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans. And law firms often were helping their clients navigate these issues as well.
The pandemic also impacted firms’ caseloads, as well as the types of cases they’re taking on. Amid the pandemic, firms have seen an uptick in wrongful termination cases brought by employees who say they’re wrongfully let go for complaining about COVID-19 policies. Universities also are contending with class-action lawsuits from students complaining that schools failed to deliver quality remote education or declined to grant refunds after moving classes online.
Civil rights cases have been filed related to mandated business closures. Businesses are suing insurers for denying business interruption cases. Industries that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic — such as retail, travel and hospitality — drove an increase in bankruptcy cases. And though President Joe Biden has extended the federal moratorium on evictions by executive order until at least March 31, that hasn’t stopped lawsuits from both tenants and landlords.
Delayed from its planned April 1, 2020, merger date by the pandemic, Atlanta-based law firm Troutman Sanders LLP and Philadelphia-based Pepper Hamilton LLP officially joined forces in July 2020 as Troutman Pepper. The firm’s Richmond office is one of the largest of Troutman Pepper’s 23 offices nationwide. With 166 attorneys and more than 250 employees statewide, Troutman Pepper is the fourth largest law firm operating in Virginia.
During the pandemic, Troutman Pepper established an online COVID-19 resource center that helped generate business for the firm.
And it isn’t alone in expanding digital efforts. Richmond’s Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP established an online interactive map and dashboard keeping track of pandemic-related lawsuits around the nation. As of Feb. 1, the tracker had identified 8,199 coronavirus-related lawsuits in America, including 95 in Virginia. Nationwide, the largest categories of complaints involved insurance, civil rights, and labor and employment.
Barry DuVal, president and CEO of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, has lobbied the General Assembly to move forward legislation that would protect employers from COVID-19-related lawsuits, as more than a dozen other states have done.
And the 2021 General Assembly session appears to have created plenty of new business opportunities for law firms around the state’s marijuana legalization efforts, including criminal history expungement.
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